Bo Bia Ngot
For those who attended school in the 1980s like myself, things were far different. Instead of sitting at KFC, Burger King or a polished-glass window café, our ritual was gathering at the school gates and buying cheap snacks.
Like many other girls, bo bia ngot was my favourite. Now it’s making a comeback. A few years ago, I was happy to see peddlers starting to sell bo bia ngot on Hanoi’s Thanh Nien Street. Nowadays, a lot of vendors stand on the streetside with a white box on their bike selling this old-time student snack.
I love buying bo bia ngot from a man who often stands near the restaurant Banh Tom Ho Tay (on Thanh Nien Street). He seems to be the only male peddler selling it on the street. “We are all living in the same village,” he told me. “Leaving our hometown, we share slum-dog apartments near Hanoi and sell this every day. I stand here from morning until 11pm at night.”
The first time I stopped my bike, I was impressed by this man’s appearance. He has a very gentle smile. He makes me think of poor labourers in the countryside. Every time I come back, I notice happiness and a smile in his eyes. I keep coming back.
It’s not a big deal when I buy one bo bia ngot (they’re VND5,000 each), but this man’s smiles make me feel happy about life. Every week, I give myself one moment of buying bo bia ngot, eating the wrapper in bites, enjoying the sweet taste of old times. I chat with the bo bia seller, enjoying the lake view along with the others mingling on the bustling street. — Huyen Tran
You can find delicious bo bia ngot sold by many vendors along Thanh Nien Street, Tay Ho, Hanoi
Bun Bo Hue
To be honest, when I first tried bu bo Hue it was not a pleasant experience. Maybe it was the place, it could have been the cook, perhaps it wasn’t fresh. For a very long time after, I refused to touch the stuff.
But that was seven years ago. Several visits to Vietnam have come and gone and the soup I once considered rank is now my go-to meal, especially for breakfast.
There’s a magic that occurs when you get the seasonings just right. The slightly oily broth envelops all these spices and the lime virtually glues itself to all the ingredients in the bowl. I tend to go heavy on the chilli oil, so the flavour overwhelms me.
I like these noodles much more than pho noodles. They are more substantial and have a better texture to my mind. They remind me of the noodles my mom used to put in chicken noodle soup when I was under the weather.
The choice of vegetables can change the flavour yet again. The shredded greens, the leafy bits and the best part of all, the stringy goodness of the banana flower slowly cooks in the broth and adds an extra dimension to the flavour. Patiently I wait as the veggies sop up the broth. Finally, it’s time to dig in!
Vietnamese food has the ability to change your palate. I used to miss food back home. But, because of my love of bun bo Hue and many other dishes, I rarely give ‘home food’ a second thought. I could literally eat bun bo Hue three times a day. — Glen Riley
Nam Giao @ 189 Bis Bui Vien, Q1, HCMC and the place by the pagoda on the corner of Duong So. 41 and Quoc Huong, Q2, HCMC
For Those in Hanoi: Quan Bun Bo Hue @ 16B Hang Ga, Hoan Kiem, and Quan Bun Bo Hue @ 38C, Mai Hac De, Hai Ba Trung
Bun Bo Nam Bo
My love affair with bun bo nam bo began when I came to visit a friend almost two years ago. I was a newcomer in every possible way. I knew next to nothing about Vietnam, Vietnamese history or Vietnamese cuisine. The only exceptions were the AUS$4 Vietnamese rolls, or banh mi, that kept me alive through my university days, which I would regularly get from a family-run shop around the corner from my house. But that was pretty much it.
Bun bo nam bo was the best introduction to Vietnamese street food that I could have asked for. A Hanoi version of a southern dish that is actually made with pork rather than beef, it was easy on the eyes (no weird-looking meats hanging in the windows here, folks), easy on the stomach and a feast for the palate. A delicious combination of salty, wok-tossed beef strips, rice noodles, bean sprouts and a helping of fried onions, balanced by a sprinkle of pickled carrots and vegetables, even though this was hotel-made bun bo nam bo, it was more than enough to spark my interest in Vietnamese food.
But my true religious awakening came when I visited the famous Bun Bo Nam Bo shop on Hang Dieu, near the Hang Da shopping mall. This shop, like many other food shops in Vietnam, specialises in one dish and one dish only. It introduced me to the way many food shops in Vietnam operate: do one thing, do it well and do it fast.
Within minutes, I was squeezing onto a bench in between lunching locals engaged in high-speed conversations that eclipsed my four-word Vietnamese repertoire. Tucking into a steaming bowl of freshly cooked bun bo nam bo, I noticed nearby locals giggling at the victorious grin on my face. “Em thich,” I managed through a mouthful of rice noodles, causing the table around me to erupt with laughter.
To this day, I still make a weekly trip to the bun bo nam bo shop on Hang Dieu. I sit on the same bench, speak more than four words of Vietnamese and enjoy one of the best dishes Hanoi has to offer. — David Mann
Bun Bo Nam Bo @ 67 Hang Dieu, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi
For Those in Saigon: It’s just not sold down south. Sorry! But if you go to a bun thit nuong stand, they might just be able to knock you out a bowl of bun thit xao, the version of this dish from which bun bo nam bo was adapted
Bun thit Nuong
Hanoians are proud people. And they’re particularly proud of their food. After living in Hanoi for almost 12 months I was already happy to consider myself a bona fide resident of the capital. I became even more proud of this when during my first trip to Ho Chi Minh City the hotel maid told me she couldn’t understand my Vietnamese because I “spoke with such a northern accent”.
Naturally, when I ventured down south, I regarded the food with suspicion and an air of superiority. That was until I tried bun thit nuong, a flavoursome blend of barbecued pork, rice noodles, pickled vegetables and fish sauce. For the next three days, I ate bun thit nuong every day. I hounded my Vietnamese colleagues for the best places in the city to eat it. Catch-ups with friends quickly descended into aggressive cross-examinations over where I could find the best bun thit nuong in the city.
“What do you want to eat while you’re here, Dave?” my friend Trang asked me on my second day down south.
“Bun thit nuong! Where?! Can we go now?”
“Calm down Dave, I will show you,” she said, laughing at my manic enthusiasm.
Fortunately, bun thit nuong is not a dish that’s hard to find in Ho Chi Minh City. Local restaurant Nha Hang Ngon delivers consistently good bun thit nuong, while those wanting a more authentic experience of sitting on blue stools and inhaling mouth-watering smoke wafting over from the barbecue can head to Thai Binh Market.
However, one place where you will struggle to find this dish is Hanoi. When I returned, I went in search for the southern delight only to be disappointed. Bun cha, while kind of similar, doesn’t even come close as a replacement.
I hold out hope, though, that one day this will change and I will stumble upon a hidden alley in Hanoi where I can sit and tuck into my favourite dish in Vietnam. — David Mann
Nha Hang Ngon @ 160 Pasteur, Q1, HCMC or Thai Binh Market, Cnr. Cong Quynh and Pham Ngu Lao, Q1, HCMC
Hanoi is most famous for pho. Every day, you’ll find countless people eating pho for breakfast, lunch and dinner, in hundreds of different ways.
When friends come to Hanoi and ask me for food recommendations, my answer is always pho. But I’m talking about a very different kind of pho — pho tron.
Tired of having pho with fat soup and too much MSG in the same bowl, I hated pho. But pho tron changed my mind I once tried it in a small restaurant on the pavement near the Temple of Literature.
No fatty soup. No MSG. And the pho was served dry with boneless chicken, bean sprouts, salad and peanuts — all the things that make a difference. A small basket of fresh vegetables comes on the side.
It looks so good, and so beautiful. I like squeezing a kumquat on top and then mixing it all up. It’s now ready to enjoy, but wait, let me take a photo first — snap!!!
I can’t eat two bowls of normal pho at a go, but if you offer me two bowls of pho tron, I’ll take them down. Good taste and no fat — that’s the source of my addiction. — Trung Del
Trung's Pho Tron Tour
Start at 1 Ngo Tat To, Dong Da, Hanoi, then head to 5 Phu Doan, Hoan Kiem; 47 Ma May, Hoan Kiem; 2 Hang Hom, Hoan Kiem; and 6 Luong Van Can, Hoan Kiem
And If You’re in Saigon… You may need to wait on this one
I remember the first time I had pho cuon. One of my good Vietnamese friends — who I had a crush on, a not-insignificant part of the story — would often take me out to lunch to discover new food. And so, one day he brought me to a pho cuon place in Truc Bach in Hanoi. I realised at first bite that pho cuon would become one of my favourite Vietnamese foods. I can’t remember anything we talked about that day, probably because I was busy memorising my first taste.
I was quite embarrassed that I had gone a full year without knowing about it. He wasn’t helping — he was teasing me, making fun of me for not trying pho cuon earlier. But I could see he was proud that he was the one to show it to me.
Now, every time I am showing a visiting friend around Hanoi, I make sure they try pho cuon.
Pho cuon is a roll made of wet rice paper, garnished with cilantro, mustard leaf, lettuce and beef. The wet rice paper is the pho noodles before they’ve actually been cut into noodles, and the dish is served cold with a great sauce made from fish sauce, vinegar, carrots, radish and garlic.
There are many great things about this dish. You can find most of the pho cuon restaurants in Hanoi on Truc Bach Island. It’s a great area that feels like a little village, quieter than the city, with children playing ball in the middle of the street.
Pho cuon is only good when it’s very fresh. The sauce is absolutely divine and well-balanced. The rice pancake is soft and thick. The beef is juicy. It’s healthy and full of fresh herbs. It is cheap and perfect for sharing. Just thinking about it makes me hungry! — Julie Vola
Pho Cuon Hung Ben @ 26 Nguyen Khac Hieu, Ba Dinh, Hanoi
For Those in Saigon: Check out Hai Thien @ 14 Bui Vien, Q1. The pho cuon has been adapted to the Saigon palate, but there’s a nice novelty here —the pho cuon is sold in different colours
When I first moved to Saigon I lived down an alleyway off De Tham in the Backpacker’s Area. At the time, little was known overseas about Vietnamese food and according to Lonely Planet, the closest thing Vietnam had to a national dish was spring rolls. How things have changed.
Intrigued by the various types of street food I saw in the area, I began trying almost everything. For a while I ate what I thought was pho every morning, to later discover that it was actually hu tieu, and it was in this same area that I discovered bun thit nuong and bo kho. The one dish, though, that I always saw at night that intrigued me were these pale yellow bricks of some weird substance, fried on a black grill and served up with a fried egg, pickled vegetables and chilli sauce. I tried asking what it was, but no-one could explain. So eventually I tried the dish myself. It’s was bot chien.
I remember the first time I sat down on that small plastic red stool in front of the chrome-topped table. What would this taste like? Not knowing what I was about to eat made me nervous. But what emerged on my plate was perhaps the Vietnamese equivalent of the egg and chip butty — a British sandwich filled with chips (French fries) and a fried egg. Cholesterol-heavy but oozing with taste — as I later discovered, the pale blocks of substance were actually made from rice flour. Greasy, fattening but damn tasty.
I haven’t eaten bot chien for years now. Originally from Cholon — an adaptation of a dish originating in Chaoshan (Trieu Chau) in Southern China — it’s increasingly difficult to find in Saigon these days. But my memories of that first taste will always raise a smile to my lips. What was I so afraid of? — Nick Ross
Dat Thanh @ 277 Vo Van Tan, Q3, HCMC. Apparently you can also find bot chien in Hanoi, but you’ll have to search for it
Thit Kho Trung
If I had to pick one dish to eat for the rest of my life, it would have to be thit kho trung.
Everyone has one dish that their mother or grandmother made as a child that just makes them feel at home. Mine is thit kho trung. If you’ve never had this dish, the best way I can describe it is: pork that is so tender that it crumbles with the slightest touch, hardboiled eggs that have been reheated for about the umpteenth time — leaving scissors for cutting through the egg as more of a necessity than a suggestion — and broth which makes me salivate regardless of if it’s a cold, gelatinous, Flubber-like mess or liquid gold.
Traditionally, thit kho trung is reserved for those fortunate enough to have home-cooked meals. Once only eaten during Tet, it isn’t exactly the most difficult dish to make, being that it’s just braised pork — typically belly, bum or shoulder — boiled eggs and a caramel sauce with a nuoc mam and fresh coconut water base. The only drawback is it can take up to two-and-a-half hours to make, which is why I don’t eat it so often.
Every time I would visit my grandma she would insist that I ate, even if I’d eaten less than an hour prior. As much as I hated it at the time, I always look back at these times with nostalgia. I hated being force-fed, but I loved the dish so I didn’t actually mind. I can still hear it now — “Muon an, khong?” “Khong, cam on”.... “An com di!” — while shoving me into a chair.
While I could very well buy it on the street in Vietnam it’s never as good. To be honest, while nearly every com tam and com binh dan restaurant in the south carries thit kho trung, I couldn’t recommend a single place to try it. Now, this isn’t because they don’t make the dish properly. Every family has a slightly different recipe and no one makes it quite as good as my ba noi. — Kyle Phanroy
His grandmother’s kitchen — she loves guests. If not, pretty much any rice restaurant in Southern and Central Vietnam